Guest post: David Levithan on censorship

beware of the book - banned booksWelcome to Banned Books Week!  The American Library Association is celebrating the freedom to read, September 26 – October 3, 2009.  Read all about Banned Books Week at the ALA website.

I’ve invited David Levithan, author of Boy Meets Boy, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Love is the Higher Law to write a guest post about censorship.  As he indicates, it’s question and answer format, based on questions he commonly recieves:

Once again, I’m going to do this in a Q&A format, based on the prompts and questions I’m frequently asked.

Q:  As a gay writer who writes a lot about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters, you must face a lot of censorship.  As your books challenged often?

A:  Every now and then I get word of a challenge, and in one case a few years ago I actually had picketers outside a library appearance.  But much more common is pre-emptive censorship, where a librarian, teacher, or bookseller will decide not to buy the book for his or her library, classroom, or store solely based on the fact that the book features LGBT characters.  Sometimes this decision is based on their own personal beliefs, and a lot of the time this decision is based on fear.

Q:  And how to you feel about that?

A:  I feel that by failing to provide books with LGBT themes or characters – or by censoring them, if it makes it to that step – you are failing to provide for the LGBT youth and adults in your community, or the youth and adults who have LGBT friends or family members.  And you’d be hard-pressed to find a community in this country that didn’t have one or the other.  It’s genuinely revolting to me that prejudice against LGBT people or books is still considered acceptable in some quarters.  We would never (I hope) say, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have books written by Jews in my library” or “Kids in this community don’t have to deal with black people, so they shouldn’t have to read about them.”  But those statements are still being made about LBGT literature.  Less and less as time goes by – but it still happens.

Q:  How conscious are you of this when you write?

A:  Not at all.  When I’m writing, I’m not really thinking about the audience.  And I’m certainly not thinking of the people who refuse to be the audience.

Q:  Why do you find you write about LGBT characters so often?love is the higher law

A:  Obviously, being gay has to do with it.  And seeing that LGBT stories are underrepresented in our literature has something to do with it.  I do think writing can be a radical act, especially if you go out into the world along with the book (as I try to do).  But honestly?  When I’m writing a story, it’s much more about the characters than any LGBT themes.  For my new book, Love is the Higher Law, I knew that two of the three characters would be gay, not because I expected LGBT characters from myself or thought other people expected them of me, but because when I sat down to write and get to know the characters, it was clear they were gay and that their intersection would be of a romantic nature (however failed or successful).

Q:  So it’s not written with an agenda?

A:  No.  Agendas work for essays, but not too much for novels.  (At least for me.)  All of the potentially political statements in the book came out of the moments being described, not from any preconceived thematic plan.

Q:  Such as?

A:  Well, I wanted to write about 9/11 and how everyone in New York came together in its aftermath.  But when writing about the day itself, I knew there was a little barb in there – because one of the only things bystanders could do on 9/11 to help was to give blood.  But because of arcane and prejudiced rules, gay people aren’t allowed to give blood.  So even in the time of need, we were being treated as lesser citizens.  (The same holds true about the soldiers who were discharged just for being gay.)  So that found its way in there.  Not because I’d planned it, but because I was describing the day from a particular character’s point of view, and that fit.

Q:  Is there anything you’re afraid to write about?

A:  I haven’t found it yet.

Thanks so much, David!  We appreciate your views on censorship – as an editor, an author, and a reader.  May you continue to bring us books that accurately reflect our times.

17 comments to Guest post: David Levithan on censorship

  • [...] David Levithan has stopped by She is Too Fond of Books today to kick off Banned Books Week. His guest post is in the form of a Q&A; he’s asked this stuff all the time, it seems. [...]

  • I totally agree, David, especially about people who make decisions based on fear (including myself, when I do it. As a parent, it’s hard not to sometimes).

    I’ve posted this at Win a Book, Dawn. Happy Banned Books Week!

  • Great interview! I got to hear David speak last night at the YA evening at the Baltimore Book Festival – he was wonderful.

  • You know, this is something that really sticks in my craw. As you know, I run our Book Fair at school. It is a Catholic school by the way. Every fair, the principal, vice principal and guidance counselor come over before we open our doors and start pulling titles off the shelves, for whatever reason. It is a total knee-jerk reaction, usually based on the cover. The books they pulled last year they don’t pull this year. Sometimes they target the spooky books, other times it is books about girl issues. It makes me crazy. This year they pulled a new book by Avi, which sent the librarian into a tailspin. She took the book home and read it that night, then campaigned the next day to put it back on the fair. It is ironic that this is happening during this week…*sigh*

  • Great interview! I especially agree with his thoughts on denying LGBT youth and adults books that reflect their lives and thoughts. It IS revolting!

  • It is a sad commentary on the state of humanity when a sexual orientation can decide whether or not a person can donate blood! I am amazed and disgusted.

    You should check out my year long Banned Books Challenge! It would be great to have your reviews.

  • Great questions.

    I still can’t believe that we limit who can give blood based on sexual orientation. It’s so ridiculously frustrating, and completely unfair and disgusting.

    Self-censorship is one of the hardest parts about being a librarian. Good librarians know how to think of their community first, and to think of what their community needs. Good librarians also realize that they can’t possibly know every member of their community and that under-served populations exist. It’s unfortunate when librarians won’t open their eyes to those populations.

    Thank you both for the interview!

  • Susan – thanks for posting this at Win-a-Book; David’s insight as an editor and author is another important perspective.

    Heather – I’m looking forward to your posts about the Baltimore Book Fest – I imagine you had a great time! Did David speak as an author, or was he moderating a panel?

    Sandy – argh! Yes, that’s crazy-making! Was the librarian successful with getting the book put back on the shelves?

    Elizabeth – it’s like denying people their own identity …

    Trisha – thanks for pointing to your year-long challenge! If I review any banned/challenged books I’ll send the reviews your way (I’m taking a step back from joining challenges in 2010, as I over-stepped my abilities to complete them this year)

    Katie – very good point, that even with the best of intentions, a librarians can’t know the entire community. I know budgets restrict the number of books purchased, but it’s frustrating to see the breadth of books restricted due to arbitrary labels of “right” or “wrong”

  • David moderated a YA panel but he also participated as an author – he read an excerpt from the book you pictured above and answered questions about it as well. I have to admit that I’ve never read anything by him though …

  • What an excellent post. The point about fear and pre-emptive censorship is an excellent one, and also one that the recent Wall Street Journal article on Banned Books Week completely missed. And the fact that prejudice against LGBTQ people is still socially acceptable in some quarters – very true, and VERY infuriating.

  • That was a great interview! I think David’s stance on this issue is admirable and it pleases me to see so many taking on the issue of censorship in today’s society. I believe that it’s so important for authors and readers to stand up for the right to read books with sensitive topics, characters, and themes. It just seems a little barbaric to me to tell someone what they can and can’t read.

  • Great interview, perfect for this week, thanks. I can kinda understand being afraid to order books that would cause a stink. Hopefully I would still do it, as I don’t believe in censoring them, but I can understand the reluctance to start a battle.

  • Excellent post, with some very good points. I didn’t consider the “preemptive” censorship side of this … where the books don’t even get ordered in the first place.

  • Nymeth – yeah, I think WSJ missed the boat on that article, too. J reads the Journal and we had quite a conversation when he brought that to my attention (he was sorry he mentioned it, I think … I got so hot under the collar, not at him, but he was the messenger!)

    zibilee – I continue to be shocked, truly shocked, at the gall of some people when it comes to pushing their beliefs onto others.

    Lisa – as far as public libraries, I think it comes down to the fact that it’s public (that is, a librarian can include/restrict any books they want from their private/home libraries). I look at the analogy of an EMT refusing to treat someone because of assumptions based on race, sexual orientation, part of town, religion, etc. As far as reluctance to start a battle, I’m a great one for hiding my head in the sand, but I know I have to speak my mind and not rely on others to fight my battles (defend my beliefs) for me.

    Jenners – I think a lot of us were struck by David’s thoughts on pre-emptive censorship; it’s an apt term.

  • Awesome interview. I haven’t read anything by David yet, but I’ve wanted to for awhile now. Love that he doesn’t worry about the audience until later. Just write what you want and there really should be more LGBT books and banned books in general is awful.

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